Racism & The Murder of Oscar Grant III

Like many of the readers here (h/t: Victor, Ilish), I’ve been following the news of the shooting death of Oscar Grant, III (photo from Facebook) in Oakland, California by a transit cop.

At the time of the shooting, Grant was unarmed, on the ground, his hands were hand-cuffed behind him.  Grant was employed as a butcher at Farmer Joe’s Marketplace in Oakland, had a young daughter, Tatiana, age 4.   Several people at the BART train station recorded the incident on their mobile phones, and witnesses reported that Grant begged officers not to shoot him, telling them he had a young daughter.

The BART cop who shot him, Johannes Mehserle, has since resigned his position, thus avoiding internal affairs investigators. And, lawyers have filed a $25 million lawsuit against the transit authority on behalf of Grant’s family.

As Grant was laid to rest today, protestors gathered at the Fruitvale BART station where he was killed to demand justice (update: the protest prompts The New York Times to take notice).

While officials at BART are suggesting that the shooting was an “accident” in which Mehserle mistook his gun for his taser, the videos taken at the scene suggest otherwise.  The BART cops move Grant from a seated (and hand-cuffed) position, place him on the ground face down, and then Mehserle reaches for his gun and shoots Grant in the back. It is not hyperbole to call this an execution. Clearly, this is an example of excessive force, and it is a nothing less than a racist murder.  And, racists are lining up to defend Mehserle’s actions.  For example, Michael Crook joined the Facebook group “Justice for Oscar Grant,” then started a discussion thread called “Quit Whining,” in which he writes:

“This was a justified shooting, and even if the officer was in error, another ape is off the streets. … This is just another family of black monkeys wanting a payday.”

I suppose the good news is that the other members of that Facebook group called out Crook for his racism.   At this point, no one knows  whether or not Mehserle held these kinds of overtly racist views.  And, to some extent it’s beside the point.    Whatever Mehserle’s individual level of racism, Grant is still dead because of racism.  The racist idea expressed by Crook that some lives are less valuable than others is one that pervades our institutions, particularly criminal justice institutions, and operates without individual racists. Institutional racism assures that some people, particuarly young black men, are continually viewed as suspects and are perpetually vulnerable to assault by police.

As I mentioned, there are multiple videos of this shooting taken by concerned passers-by.  This may persuade some that there is incontrovertible evidence of this outrageous, criminal act.  But, the institutionalized racism that creates black men as ontological suspects has already started denying the reality of this mobile phone video evidence.   In one report, there’s mention that Grant possibly had a criminal record; in another, a BART spokesman calls the video evidence is “inconclusive”; and, reports are painting Mehserle as sympathetic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he is getting death threats.    For observers of racial politics in the U.S., this should all sound eerily similar to the kinds of strategies used in the trial of the LAPD cops accused of beating Rodney King.   As you may recall, even though there was clear, stomach-turning video of those officers brutally beating and tasering the unarmed King, defense lawyers for the cops successfully portrayed King as a “monster” and a “thug” and cast the officers as “victims” who felt threatened by him.   All the officers were acquitted of beating King, and if past is prologue, I expect Mehserle to walk without criminal prosecution.

The sort of citizen journalism and activism of cop-watch style actions are promising for addressing brutal acts such as the racist murder of Oscar Grant. Yet, the lessons of racism in the recent past are that these are important, but not sufficient in and of themselves to bring about justice.  For that, we must work much harder.  Take action.

Cloaked MLK Website Draws Millions This Time of Year

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article recently about the website about Martin Luther King that white supremacist Don Black publishes (h/t Charles Cameron).  The site is what I refer to as a cloaked site, that is, a website published by an individual or group who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In the case of Don Black’s website, the goal of the website is akin to what one scholar has called the discursive construction of uncertainty.  In other words, the site is intended to make visitors to the website question the contribution of Dr. King to civil rights, and indeed, to question the goal of civil rights as a worthy goal.  In my research with young people (ages 15-19), I’ve found that stumbling upon the site through a search engine frequently is confusing for novice web surfers.  (I’ve written about this in a number of publications and this research also appears in my forthcoming book, Cyber Racism.)

Part of what was intriguing to me about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article is that the reporter, Ty Tagami, takes up the comparison of the cloaked site and the legitimate King Center site, a comparison that I address in my research.   What I found in comparing traffic to both websites using the web traffic site Alexa is that at this time of year, around Martin Luther King Day, there’s a big increase in the number of visitors to both sites.  Here, in a graph generated by me via Alexa, traffic to the legitimate site appears in blue, the traffic to the cloaked site appears in red.  The time period covered is the first six months of 2006; and, the website traffic is graphed here in terms of “Daily Reach (per million)” along the left, and the months across the bottom.

There are several things worth noting in this graph.  First, and perhaps most alarming, the traffic to both websites peaks in mid-to-late January, around the time of the national Martin Luther King holiday.  I interpret this to mean that people are interested in learning more about Dr. King around the time of the annual holiday, and log on to find more information.  Relying on a typical search engine, they find both sites and inadvertently end up at the cloaked site.   Second, what’s telling about this year in particular is that 2006 is the year that Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, passed away (January 30, 2006) and the traffic for the King Center reflects a rather dramatic jump around that time.   This is the only time that the traffic for both sites is noticeably different.  Mostly, the two sites have very similar patterns.

This suggests a rather profound shift in the terrain of racial politics.  Using a standard search engine and the search terms “Martin Luther King” this website regularly appears third or fourth in the results returned by Google.  Before even viewing the content of this site, the URL makes it appear to be legitimate, in part because the main web reference is made up of only the domain name “martinlutherking,” and the URL ends with the suffix “.org.” The decision to register the domain name “martinlutherking.org” relatively early in the evolution of the web, was a shrewd and opportune move for advocates of white supremacy; failure to do likewise was a lost opportunity for advocates of civil rights. Recognizing that domain name registration is now a political battleground, a number of civil rights organizations have begun to reserve domain names to prevent them from being used by opponents of racial justice.  For example, the NAACP has registered six domain names that include the word “nigger” and the ADL has registered a similar number of domain names with the word “kike.”    However, registering offensive epithets is only a small part of the struggle.  The move by opponents to equality to register the esteemed symbols of civil rights as domain names, such as Martin Luther King, and use them to undermine racial justice is one that was clearly unanticipated by civil rights organizations.

To be effective, cloaked sites with seemingly legitimate-sounding domain  rely on the naïveté of their target audience.   This naïveté is about both new media literacy and about a racial consciousness that recognizes and resists the white racial frame.   Cultivating both of these is important as we once again approach the national King Holiday and millions of web visitors look for information about Dr. King.